Situated on the southern slopes of the Himalayas, landlocked Nepal’s 3,222-kilometre frontier is sandwiched between two Asian giants—India and China—its only neighbours. Surrounded by the Tibet Autonomous Region of China in the north and Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Sikkim on the other three sides, Nepal’s economy is at the mercy of India and to a lesser degree China.
Projected as a buffer state between India and China, everything conspires against its rise and stability. The terrain is one, especially the mountainous heart topped by the permanently snow-capped peaks that gives the range its name; Himalaya. The tribal rivalries are another, with the domination of hill people and the deprivation of Tharus and Madheshi communities. Finally, the unending spiral of monarchy and constitutional democracy after independence and the interference of predatory foreign forces have also contributed to making the country restless and desperate.
After a decade-long civil war, Nepal’s Maoist rebels forced King Gyanendra to enter a peace deal that ended his direct rule in 2006. On January 17, 2007, an interim constitution, the sixth in its history since 1948, was promulgated by a seven-party alliance and the Maoists. In May 2008 Gyanendra was asked to leave his palace formally, ending his seven-year reign and marking the fall of the 239-year rule of the House of Shah.
Then followed a further eight years of volatility and turbulence until, on August 23, the new constitution was tabled for vote. Protracted violence rocked the hill state, claiming 40 lives in the first phase. Amid protests and unrest, on September 16, the new constitution was adopted by parliament. But it was born with congenital deformities as historically marginalised groups like the Tharus, the Madheshis and a host of others who feel betrayed have begun a fresh wave of street protests. Women’s associations want a fair deal on single parent and citizenship issues; Hindu groups aspire to restore the Hindu state status (abolished in 2007); and progressive pro-left supporters want a new era where majoritarian male-dominated rule will end and even distribution of land among all will follow.
India and Nepal share 1,751 kilometres of open frontiers. Both allow visa-less, Customs-free movement of people and goods. Under the Treaty of Peace and Friendship 1950, an extension of the Sagauli Treaty signed in 1815, “Government of India and Nepal agree to grant, on reciprocal basis, to the nationals of one country in the territories of the other the same privileges in the matter of residence, ownership of property, participation in trade and commerce, movement and privileges of a similar nature”.
Besides diplomatic and economic relations, a common religion and similarity in culture binds people of the two countries. These commonalities also inspire jealousy and anti-India feelings in Nepal. India’s affection for Nepalis with Indian roots and its near-total control over Nepal’s communication arteries are construed as foreign interference.
Besides the movement of goods and people, the treaty allows Nepal to acquire arms in India and provides for unrestricted participation of Indians and Nepalis in the other country’s industry and commerce. Nepali scholars and politicians argue that while India had freed itself from foreign domination when the treaty was signed, Nepal was under the monarchy. Therefore, it is tilted unfairly towards India and makes Nepal a virtual subsidiary state. Indians perceive the treaty as an expression of genuine affection at huge cost. Economically and culturally, India is too big to gain anything while Nepalis not only cherish their links with the Indian civilisation but also descend en masse on India for a living and consider it their original homeland.
ndia is an economic powerhouse and emerging world power, but neither the government nor ordinary Indians view Nepal in negative light. In contrast, barring a few select pockets, anti-India feeling in Nepal is widespread. Why?
The answers lie in the convoluted evolution of modern Nepal and the overconfident attitude of the Indian diplomatic corps. In 1814, British India defeated Nepal, forcing it to sign the Sagauli treaty in December 1815. Nepal, as per the treaty, ceded the entire swathe west of the Mahakali River, all the Terai, and the region east of the Mechi River to Sikkim. In 1857, the treaty was modified and Britain returned the Terai to Nepal as a reward when 12,000 Nepali recruits helped quell the Indian Mutiny. That is how the present border of Nepal stabilised and gained recognition.
Two years after India’s independence, on September 10, 1949, China proclaimed Tibet a Chinese territory exposing India’s soft underbelly including her friendly neighbours Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim to its direct firing line. Nepal apprehensions about security led to the India-Nepal Friendship Treaty of 1950. Apart from insulating Nepal from China’s possible onslaught, as Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru informed the Parliament on December 6, 1950, India wanted its security inextricably linked with the security of Nepali frontiers. Any foreign aggression against Nepal would inevitably involve the security of India.
Considering Nepal’s geo-strategic location, Nehru’s vision not only ensured its security but also guaranteed its perpetual cultural and religious assimilation with India. Contrary to Nehru’s vision, Nepalis viewed this assimilation a plot that caged Nepal without firing a single shot.
China, its only other neighbour waiting at the doorstep to counter India’s domination, stoked Nepal’s suspicions. It established direct relations with China on August 1, 1955. A year later, Nepal and China inked “Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence” which became the bedrock of their mutual relations. Before the Sino-India war, the B. P. Koirala government clarified that Nepal was neutral. A new kind of policy, “maintenance of equidistance from India and China”, was taking shape.
In the midst of the upheaval, during 1962, King Mahendra was facing internal opposition and sought Nehru’s help to quell the agitators who were using Indian soil to oppose the king. Nehru refused, citing the 1950 treaty that allowed full civil rights in India to the exiled Nepalese Congress leaders.
India’s democratic experience is appreciated across the world and its advice sought by many countries, including Bhutan, while formulating a new constitution. Not Nepal, however.
Mahendra retaliated with the recognition of the “One China” policy and assured the Chinese that he would never allow any anti-China elements on its soil. Taking his cue from Pakistan, he ordered, overtly and covertly, the dissemination of anti-India ideologies to indoctrinate Nepali youth. The Maoists, against whom Mahendra sought help from Nehru, were the first to subscribe to the anti-India campaign.
Buoyed by the geographic advantage and almost complete monopoly on energy export to Nepal, Indian diplomats interfered in every aspect of Nepali life. Such participation, sometimes irrational, sometimes parochial and seldom in the national interest portrayed India poorly among the average Nepali. Its rulers failed to provide economic growth and cast about for a scapegoat. India, with its overzealous diplomats fitted the description.
India’s democratic experience is appreciated across the world and its advice sought by many countries, including Bhutan, while formulating a new constitution. Not Nepal, however. During the making of its constitution, India’s advice, particularly on the formation of a proposal drafting committee to prepare questionnaire on disputes over the new statute, was treated with contempt. After the constitution was adopted, an unimpressed India asked its foreign secretary to visit Kathmandu in the midst of the crisis over the Madeshis and others, and pleaded with the government to resolve the stalemate in an amicable manner.
Nepal refused to heed the advice and endorsed the constitution. In stark contrast with New Delhi’s cold signals of unhappiness and refusal to welcome the new constitution, China and Pakistan were extremely cordial. Annoyed by Nepali intransigence, New Delhi sent a list of seven “amendments” to Kathmandu to ensure the rights of Madhesis and Janjatis. In the meantime, there was a virtual blockade of essential supplies passing through India.
Many Nepalis believe it was India’s handiwork and some news agencies also reported that the blockade had been orchestrated by India to squeeze Nepal. Its political parties united against India and in October, the Intelligence Bureau informed the government and the National Security Advisor that, “The disruption due to the blockade imposed by the Madhesis and Tharus has been termed as a blockade imposed by the government of India by some sections of Nepali public.”
The Madhesi complaint against deprivation is age old. The residents of Madhes, despite their two-century residency, are still identified with their Indian lineage.
At the root of the crisis is India’s association with the
Madhesis. Nepal is naturally divided into three regions—the mountain region,
highly influenced by people of Tibetan origin and their values; the hill
region, which is extensively farmed, and the Terai region also known as
Madhesh. The Terai in Nepal is a belt of fertile plain in the southern part of
the country bordering India. Twenty of Nepal’s 75 districts are in this region,
which is also estimated to house 55 per cent of the population.
The Madhesi complaint against deprivation is age old. The term “Madhes” originated from Sanskrit Madhyadesh, central realm in the Hindu political canons of Nepal, to refer to the Terai plain including India. The residents of Madhes, linked with people of Indian descent, are different from the Pahad-desh or hill country.
Despite their two-century residency, which predates the demarcation of the India-Nepal boundary, Madhesis are still identified with their Indian lineage. While Avadhi, Bhojpuri and Maithil were widely spoken in the Terai, Maithil was used in the Kathmandu court. As per the Nepali census, nearly 23 per cent of Nepalis speak these three languages.
Their integration with mainstream Nepal is still to be completed and in the meantime Madhesis look to India for the redressal of their grievances. And that list is a long one. Their complaints about discrimination include lack of government investment in the Terai, its inability to distribute land along the East-West Highway to the Terai population, miserable economic conditions and low per capita income, the terrible conditions of the Dalits, who make up nearly 37 per cent of the local population and, above all, denial of citizenship certificates to people on account of their alleged dual nationality. Madhesis are enraged with the 1984 Dr Harka Gurung-led commission on immigration that recommended far more stringent control over migration from India.
epal’s protracted mess, due to its long transition from autocracy to democracy and from monarchy to republic, is intractable for now. The new Prime Minister K. P. Oli, a communist, perceived divisive figure and allegedly anti-Madhesi, takes office in a time of chronic instability and violence, at the forefront of confrontation with India. Recent developments indicate not only that India’s ties with Nepal have hit rock bottom but also that things may get worse. The Constituent Assembly was unfairly disposed towards a sizeable section of Nepalis. The room available for improvements is so narrow that the deprived people are getting impatient and street demonstrations are crippling the small, landlocked economy.
India’s image among Nepali politicians, especially communists, is so bad that they are doing the exact opposite of what India would like to see. Its role is unwelcome among large sections of Nepalis constantly fed with the negative consequences of India’s geographical, economic and military superiority. So what is India’s official position and how is it faring on the ground?
Early relations were guided by “invincible, indestructible and everlasting nature of age-old brotherly
relations”. Later, the shape of the relation was steered by, as Nehru made
clear, India’s intention not to share Nepal as a “sphere of influence” with
China. To achieve these objectives, it promoted parliamentary democracy,
economic development and stability. However, from the 1960s on, Sino-Indian
relations deteriorated and each country tried to keep Nepal
on its side.
The major threat to the royal regime came from political leaders who had taken refuge in India. The Nepali Congress was energised by Indian disapproval of the king’s actions, which made India a villain in his regime’s eyes. The seed of discontent took deep root in coming days and a tiny Nepal raised its head against Indira Gandhi and denounced India’s support to the Soviet Union in the Afghan war and supported Chinese and American action to rearm Pakistan. Chinese expressed its happiness at the Nepali campaign to mobilise Asian nations against India’s leadership on the Afghan issue.
Domestically, India’s stand in Nepal has been under severe scrutiny as ambassador after ambassador supported ethnic groups they favoured to stake a claim. India’s intelligence agencies and specific foreign service officers have pursued self-proclaimed short term foreign policy goals. The common man wants a peaceful Nepal and people at the border prefer prosperous co-existence.
The political leadership, as reiterated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his Nepal visit, also stood by Nepal’s progress and non-interference. Nevertheless, the narrow interpretation of national interest by a select group of Indian officials not only jeopardises the objective but risks sending India along a path where it might lose every advantage calibrated and acquired over a long period. Diplomats and intelligence officers are India’s window to craft foreign policy but their role in the present crisis is questionable. India needs to reorient its Nepal policy before more damage is done.
The Madhesis being supported by their Indian backers are high on Nepal’s irritant scale. An escalation could lead to a point of no return where our homegrown Maoist insurgents, Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence-supported militant groups, and other terrorist groups may take refuge under the same umbrella.